There's a conception in some quarters that the HSE's out to get designers, ' says Health & Safety Executive chief inspector for construction Kevin Myers.
'It's not true.'
A couple of high profile prosecutions this year, notably of consultant Andrew Allan (NCE 13 May), have whipped up a storm of debate about the health and safety responsibilities of designers, and brought accusations that the HSE is cracking down on them unfairly hard.
But Myers rebuts the claims: 'I do not propose to comment on individual cases. But we cannot and do not go after anybody for the sake of it.'
The HSE's approach to prosecution is set out in an open enforcement policy statement and it also has to operate to a strict guidance code that applies to all crown prosecutors. Its activities are strictly governed by the law.
And investigations must pass two tests - they must be in the public interest and be evidence based. Without reliable evidence, the HSE cannot bring a case.
'When somebody dies, however, we are duty bound to look at all the players who could have contributed to that accident, ' Myers emphasises. 'It happens that in two recent cases we have seen fit to go after the designer.'
This is actually an exception, though, not the rule.
Myers believes the relative psychological distance between the design and construction processes is accentuated by physical separation. 'How many designers get mud on their boots?' This means most actually feel too little responsibility for onsite safety, he claims. 'That's one of the things that can get in the way of their understanding of their responsibilities and the consequences of those responsibilities.
'When we analyse accidents to identify all the underlying causes, we find that there's a percentage of them where design has contributed to the risk created and subsequently realised.
Something like 60% of accidents have their roots upstream of what happens on the construction site.
It's not the fault of design, necessarily, but of failings in procurement and planning, of which design is part of the picture.
'The important issue isn't whether a certain percentage of accidents are the fault of designers. The question to address is whether all the players in the process are performing a role [in combating health and safety risks].'
Myers says that HSE efforts to iron health and safety risks out of the construction process are bearing fruit when dealing with contractors and trade associations. With the Federation of Piling Specialists it has recently succeeded in drawing up a new industry code of safe practice.
'The HSE's trying to change construction industry culture in a number of different ways, ' Myers says. By and large, contractors are responsive.
'But designers think they're special. We'd like to develop a code of safe practice with the design community, but half of designers are unaware of the issues, and some are in denial of having legal responsibilities.'
NCE's own survey showed that, though 70% of designers said they understand their safety responsibilities, over 80% felt they could do more to design out health and safety risks during construction (NCE 23 September).
'There's a problem to do with designers' acceptance [of their shortcomings] and what they're willing to do about it, ' Myers says.
Health and safety education at undergraduate level is now a pretty standard part of BEng and MEng courses, but most graduates find there is little value placed on health and safety in design offices.
'Competence achieved at graduate level is lost.' The culture of placing health and safety second to other design criteria will take '40 years to overcome' at present rates, Myers ventures.
He says a concerted, longrunning push is required by the professional institutions to get construction health and safety up alongside other design desirables.
'We need to re-engineer the profession. In law, and applying common sense, everybody has responsibility for health and safety and it's a matter of them discharging that responsibility properly, ' Myers says. 'Health and safety is not the concern of a nanny state. It's an industry role. It's about adding value to industry and society at large.
Myers will spell out the HSE's strategy and objectives with regard to the designer's role in ensuring safety at a conference next month. CDM Regulations:
Designing for Safety, organised by NCE, takes place on 25 November. For more information www. design-safety.co.uk or call (020) 7505 6044.